Apr 122017

by: Anonymous

I sat at the intersection waiting for the red light to turn green. I thought to myself that if it turns green by the time I count to three, then I’ll do it. I counted; one, two, three…. the light remained red and I began to tear up, how could I have gotten to a place where this seemed to be my only choice of salvage? Shame and disappointment streamed down my face, then the light turned green and I started to drive. I was physically behind the wheel but by no means was I mentally present. My intention to crash the car was not to die, not at all, that would be a sin and besides, I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to be removed from life for a few months so that I never had to explain what had happened, to anyone. As a nineteen year old Muslim girl, choices seemed slim and that appeared to be the only choice that didn’t place me a dishonorable position.

My family dynamics were strongly rooted in the Islamic faith. It dictated the way we thought and behaved on a daily basis. I had no knowledge or awareness about sexual health; I gathered information through context clues on television, books, and peer conversations at school. I remember feeling shameful for my curiosity, but at the same time was fascinated by the concept of connecting with someone through your body. From my peers, I gathered that sexuality was not a safe topic to discuss without being severely judged. I formed the core belief that speaking about sex was improper, immodest, and sinful; therefore, acting on anything of the sort prior to marriage was something I could not comprehend.

It was not until I was nineteen years old that I met someone who discussed sexuality openly. I was a freshman and he was a fifth year senior at our college. Gradually, we became good friends; he was one of my first male friends which disrupted my understanding of boundaries. Another core belief of mine was the assumption that all Indian/Pakistani boys were ‘good guys’ and would protect me from harm. Throughout our friendship, there was an apparent power differential; I was a naïve, sheltered freshman and he was someone who was exposed to enough of the world to understand emotional maturity and interpersonal dynamics; both of which I had no foundation in.

As time went on, this boy took on more of a mentor role than one of a friend. He single handedly became the biggest influence in my life. As time went on, he gradually managed to slip in blame, shame, criticism, and name-calling into our interactions. He weaved truths and non-truths together. He constantly told me I was ugly, annoying, weak, and had ‘unattractive dark-skin tone’; the list went on and on. I started to believe him and began to overcompensate the ‘ugly’ me by taking on the ‘pleaser’ role. I began to suppress my intuition and follow a path of behaviors that would lead me to feel wanted and needed by others, especially him.

He would share jokes related to sex and because I had now taken on the ‘pleaser’ role, I would laugh, often without even understanding the meaning. He would invite me into discussing these topics and then label me a nympho for participating; again, mixed messages. One day he asked me a personal question related to masturbation, soon thereafter, those personal questions began to escalate and I distinctly remember something inside of me did not feel at ease. His questions turned into actions with me, and as much as my intuition was screaming, the sounds were muffled by the desire to be wanted. I did what he wanted to and I pretended to enjoy my time. If at any point he felt resistance from me, he would mention how I was ‘uncool’ and not the ‘exploratory’ type he thought I was. He would constantly belittle me before and afterwards say that no one would want me unless I was more sexually experienced. He said he was doing me a favor by teaching me.

I began to think I was falling in love with him; I began to believe that this was a healthy form of attachment because I had no model or comparison of what a healthy one looked like. I began to believe I would stick it out until he also loved me too; because in my mind I could not be touched by more than one man, it had to be him who I marry.

While this was going on, I would spend my days in bed either sleeping the guilt away or laying there for hours replaying my ‘sins’ from the night before in my head. I felt violated but I didn’t understand why because I had given consent; I chose to interact with him; therefore, it did not make sense for me to feel grossly exposed. I would challenge my intuition that was screaming ‘fear’ by thoughts of self-blame, telling myself I had a responsibility in this too. It made logical sense to me at that time. It didn’t occur to me why I kept going ‘voluntarily’ to his place. It didn’t occur to me that all the reasons I was doing what I was doing were far more than I could comprehend at that time and had nothing to do with my perceived consent.

I stopped going to classes in college due to being in bed most of the day. I would spend my days in bed, and nights either on campus with friends or with him. He would never let me spend the night at his place, so I would have to find somewhere to crash at 2am until the next morning when it was a reasonable time for me to go home as I lived with my parents. One night he had smoked weed and acted more forcefully; my pleasing laughs that night were much more panicky; never did I say no or stop. Therefore, I consented… right?

During our entire friendship, no one knew we were close friends. We hid our friendship; or I should say more like he hid our friendship and I followed his lead. He knew I would never tell anyone, for my own self-preservation and for his. He was fully confident that I would protect him and he was right. He had set the parameters such that there would be no accountability.

I started to drown; I started to become more recluse and withdrawn from my friends and family. Every minute of the waking day, I would re-play episodes of what happened in my head, a way to punish myself over and over again. The punitive notion instilled in me as a child told me I deserved this pain. Then I received a letter in the mail, it was the end of the Fall semester and the letter read I had failed out of school due to my substantially low GPA. As a South Asian daughter of immigrants who highly value education, this incident threw me over the edge. The letter read that after the Spring semester is complete, I could re-apply into the university. My head spun around in circles. What would I do for a whole semester? What would my parents think? What would we tell people? What would be any solid reason to be absent from school for an entire semester? …Which leads me back to being at that that traffic light, wondering if I should crash my car, wondering that if I was in the hospital for a few months then that would be a rational reason to tell everyone why I took a leave of absence.

For the first time, things began to appear more clearly about my relationship with this boy, or should I say man. There were so many contradictions that I began to question. How could someone that I go to the Mosque to pray Taraweeh with also be the same person that I felt violated with… and on the same night? How could someone who is perceived to be always right, also be wrong? I made a promise to myself and had all intentions of ending the friendship. I visited him once after that while I used my sister, unbeknownst to her, as my protection as she waited in the car. As soon as he heard my sister was outside waiting, he backed away from me, something I never had the voice to demand he do. I gathered any belongings I had left at his place and told him I would see him later. I didn’t know what later meant but all I knew was for the time being I would be unable to see him. I spent the entire Winter break in my bed or on my prayer rug; I repented for hours and hours every night. I would hold Sujud and just cry; my tears were so familiar to me by then that it seemed unnatural to go a day without them.

I eventually told my parents that my GPA was too low to return; disappointing my parents was a grief all on its own.  My parents never asked questions about the reason behind my low grades, they assumed my lack of motivation in school was due to their own poor parenting and began to spiral down their own dysfunctional patterns of self-blame.

Soon thereafter, I was able to speak with each professor about raising my grades and by a miracle, I was able to change my GPA and continue on with the Spring semester. Although each professor did offer to change my grade which I am thankful for, they could tell something hurtful had happened to me; however, none of them asked or offered emotional assistance. The shame and non-intrusiveness attitudes reaffirmed to me that I was alone in this whole mess that I had indeed created for myself.

The next semester, I focused on myself, my grades, and God. However, while I tried my best to rely on my inner strength and God to lead me, the man who was once my mentor was out of my life but not out of my head. The man would email me frequently for years. I secretly felt important that he could not forget me. Even though the unhealthy behaviors had stopped, the unhealthy emotions remained present.

Life went on; and I met another man in my mid 20s and the pattern continued just in a different form; he would constantly belittle me, shame me, call me names and tell me repeatedly I was unattractive, yet I continued to date him. Patterns don’t just end; interventions are needed for change to occur in life.

The beginning of my intervention was when I went through a vigorous graduate program which focused heavily on self-awareness and growth and I finally began to understand healthy relational dynamics. I had a-ha moments about the men in my life and the unhealthy patterns of our relationships. I nurtured a loving and non-punitive relationship with God, understanding there is a significant flaw in dichotomous thinking. During this heightened self-awareness, I also had a small inclination that perhaps what happened to me when I was a freshman/sophomore in college was a form of abuse; however, I was fearful to process these thoughts with others. What if no one believed me? I mustered up the courage to go to a counselor and I told this woman something I had not told anyone in my life; that I believed I was abused and that my consent was not valid. My worst fear was confirmed; she did not believe me and asked if I was over exaggerating the event in my mind in order to punish him. I was devastated. It confirmed that indeed I had consented and I was to blame. I would never tell another soul.

One day I was in a semintablet-1910018_1920ar for domestic violence and the term sexual coercion came up. A very brief definition of sexual coercion was mentioned: a tactic used by perpetrators to intimidate, trick or force someone to have sex with him/her without physical force. I began to learn more about power and control, emotional abuse, intimidation, isolation, minimizing denying and blaming, male privilege, and coercion. And yes, I finally understood, in my story, there was not consent. My inner self began to grow confident enough to disregard if anyone didn’t believe me because I believed me and that’s all that mattered.

I tried to discuss dynamics of power and control with close friends and extended family; however, most of them fired back, stating brushing my views off as “extreme feminism.” As a result, I suppressed my thoughts and refrained from sharing with close friends and family. I confided in myself and sadly, that was my reality.

Years went on and throughout more ups and downs and downs again, I started to learn what a healthy sexual relationship looked like and I started to be drawn to healthier people rather than toxic ones. I eventually met and married my husband in my mid 30s; the healthiest relationship I have had thus far. I told my husband what had happened in my life and without hesitation, he believed me; what a corrective emotional experience.

When I heard about HEART Women and Girls, I was in disbelief that there was an organization which addressed the same issues I feel passionate to educate the Muslim community about. The lack of sex education has hurt a staggering number of Muslim girls and women. In efforts to shield and protect our children, we are leaving them completely exposed for harm and abuse. It is for this reason that for the first time, I wanted to write down my experience. If you take anything away from this story, please know that there are people in the community who will believe you. There are people in the community to help you, and who are legally and ethically bound to so in a confidential way. You have a right to be educated and a right to be heard.

Once in a while when I find myself at that same traffic light, I take a deep breath in and remember that I am not just physically in the driver’s seat but I am also mentally and emotionally behind the wheel of my life. Now when the light turns green, I exhale a breath of gratitude and keep moving forward.

Apr 052017

by Fatima Noor

Survivors, like me, whether from rape or domestic abuse, silently throw rants of blame against ourselves. The gaze our eyes lay on our reflections is one filled with shame. Our hearts electrocute our bodies with self-disdain with every second that ticks away. The intimate insides of our bodies curse us with feelings of filth. Every cell of our beings screams with questions beginning with who, what, where, when, why and how. Memories raid our minds and sacrifice our little-to-nothing sleep. With seconds of an attack, we, as survivors, become our own worst critics.

In my previous blog entitled “Confessions Part 1: My Sisters (11)”, I wrote about my conversation with my sisters about my rape. Unfortunately, it failed to go as well as I anticipated. Understandably, they were shocked and some of their words added insult to injury. So, as a follow up, I thought I would discuss in detail about the do’s and don’ts when speaking with a survivor.  I put together this list based on my own experience and with help from other organizations, like HEART Women and Girls, Know Your IX and RAINN.

  1.  Don’t demand or even expect to know the details of what happened, who he is or when it occurred. The incident was terrible and the last thing we want is to re-live it all over again. Instead, remind yourself that this is our story and allow us to navigate through it in the manner we believe is right for us.
  2. On the contrary, if we want to share our story, whether in a public or private forum, don’t throw roadblocks, in the form of guilt-trips and threats, in our way. We may have a desire to help others or this may be a way for us to feel empowered. Rape is an act of control and perpetrators expect and hope that their victims will be hush-hush about it. Talking about the assault is a way for us to get the power back in our hands. So rather than “shushing” us up, help us take back the stolen reigns of our decision-making power so that we may pave the path of our recovery.
  3. Don’t give us a difficult time or call us “selfish” when we practice self-care. Encourage us to take care of ourselves, especially when it relieves us from the hustle and bustle of our daily chores. Support us to partake in soothing activities such as painting, reading or crocheting. Help us run a few errands so that we may catch a few extra zzz’s. Urge us to try something new, such as learning to play an instrument. Come with us for some recreational activities, like a movie, coffee or bowling. Many of my friends inspired me to write about my trauma and its surrounding issues to help me cope; this blog is a result of the support I received!
  4. Don’t doubt our sanity or challenge our authenticity with questions or statements like, “are you sure you were raped?” “he doesn’t seem like that kind of guy,” or “this doesn’t make sense.” By doing so, you provoke one of the greatest fears of not being trusted. Rather, believe us and in us and avoid ripping, breaking, damaging or hurting us even more.
  5. Don’t demean us by questioning “why didn’t you learn from your past?” “what were you wearing?” and “why were you there?” all of which sting and put the blame on us. Rather, console us with warm, welcoming phrases like, “I am sorry” and “it’s not your fault,” which may help replace the intimidating voices of our assailants that threatened our peace of mind.
  6. Don’t challenge us with questions of what and why we did or did not do something. We were shocked, hurt, confused and scared. We did the best we could considering the severity of the situation. As much as we wish, there is no manual guide that we could flip through in order to deal with the ordeal. Many of us have regrets and we beat ourselves up for the decisions that we did or did not make. If you come along in our life, help us to look forward using what we learned from the past without any blaming and shaming.
  7. Don’t throw out haunting accusations of “why didn’t you see this coming?” or “this never would have happened if you had done x, y or z.” After all, we are only human and not fortune tellers. If we knew this was our destiny, we probably wouldn’t have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead, hug us, hold our hands and stand by us as we bleed out the agony from within and all around us.
  8. Don’t get frustrated at our ups and downs that we undergo. One day we will be able to laugh and go out with friends and the next day we could be feeling suicidal. One week, we may not shed a tear, while another week may be filled with sleepless crying nights. Instead, give us positive feedback like “you are doing great” or “it is natural to feel this way.” Be patient with us as we move four steps forward one day and eleven steps back another day.
  9. If we choose not to talk to you in detail because you are our loved ones, don’t be offended, jealous, angry or cold. Rape is a crime that occurs in private and involves intimate details, making us uncomfortable talking about it, especially to the closest people in our lives. And most likely than not, we don’t want to hurt you. Knowing this, encourage us to seek help with professional therapists and friends or family with whom we are comfortable with. The purpose is for us to heal in the long run. I will be the first to admit that I opted to talk to my friends and therapists over my family members both during the domestic abuse and rape.rose-1751742_1920
  10. If we pull away from you, don’t ignore us or get upset with us. Chances are we naturally let our emotions get the better of us. Understand the extreme situation and follow up with us, text us, call us, smile at us, sit next to or with us or send us small tokens that show your appreciation with us. After telling one of my good friends about my trauma, she graciously delivered four dozen pinkish-peach blooming roses to my office. Then a few days later, we met up for dinner, where she allowed me to “vent.” These small gestures brightened up my week.
  11. Don’t undermine the gravity of the trauma based on the details of the assault: number of times the assault occurred (once vs. ten times); relationship with the perpetrator (significant other vs. stranger); length the assailant and victim stayed together (immediate breakup or being together for months after the rape); when it occurred (last week vs. ten years ago); and whether there were use of weapons and/or threats. Rape is traumatic no matter what the surrounding atmosphere is. Being raped by a spouse may be just as disturbing as being assaulted by a stranger. In addition, just because the abuse occurred years ago, doesn’t mean that we have healed. Therefore, always be a supporting friend who will help replace what we lost with joy, laughter and smiles in our lives. The man who raped me never used violence or weapons and I stayed with him for two years after the assault. And dealing with him day after day for that timeframe caused me even more agony and trauma than what I had originally undergone.
  12. Don’t belittle the incident by linking it to sex, love and intimacy with claims that “it was just sex,” “at least this wasn’t your first time,” “he was expressing his love,” or “take it as a compliment.” Rape is a violation of our body and is a crime of manipulation and power over someone. It doesn’t leave behind feelings of love; it leaves traces of not just physical damage, but mental and emotional as well.
  13. At the same time, don’t say that we allowed our “nafs (an Islamic term meaning our selfish desires) to consume us; this is again a form of blame.  It was abuse, not any type of desire that fell upon us.  Yes, we may have been interested in pursuing a relationship with the perpetrator initially, but there is no correlation between the attack(s) and our desire for a companion or love.  When I had initially told someone about my situation, she said that I was desperate for a companion which is why I allowed the rape to occur and why I stayed with the rapist.  That pierced my heart so terribly that I refused to confide in her ever again.  Understand, rape is a crime and abuse and is never the fault of the victim/survivor.
  14. Don’t make excuses for the perpetrator, i.e. “maybe he was having a bad day,” “that’s how man was created” or “he was attracted to you.” No, we don’t want to hear these excuses and no, they are not justifiable or valid. Rape is wrong regardless of the reasons.
  15. Don’t approve the assault just because there was flirting, dating or sexting. Physical touch is not the same thing as words plastered on an email or whispered on a phone call. These shouldn’t even be factored into the equation.
  16. Do not minimize sexual assault to only instances involving penetration. Sexual assault can occur even if the only kissed the victim or never even saw the victim naked. A violation is a violation despite the degree of it. Rather than focusing on the actual assault or assailant, keep your attention on us survivors and accompany us on our journey of recovery.
  17. Don’t make decisions for us and don’t corner us into defending the decisions we have previously made. Questions like “why didn’t you tell anybody?” or “why haven’t you filed a report?” are subtle ways of advising us on what we should or should not do. As an alternative, allow us to be the driver of our healing, moving in the direction we choose. Of course, give us advice if we ask you, but never force us into things we don’t want to or stop us from taking certain courses of action that we want to. Some of us may choose to file a police report, while others may choose to become an activist and even others may want to put the past behind them to simply heal.
  18. Don’t share our story with others, even if it is with another family member, without our permission. It was an honor for you (and not your right) that we revealed this personal aspect of our life to you. We confided in you because we respect and trust you so please reciprocate that respect and trust. It is our story, our life and our trauma; let us unveil it the way we want, when we want, to whom with want, in the manner we want and with the details we want.
  19. Don’t avoid us, treat us differently, view us as damaged goods or make us feel like a burden. We need all the support and love we can get because there is no cast to heal our broken trust, bandage to hide the pain or glue to put back our shattered hearts. One of the comments I had heard during this ordeal was “you’ve done enough to your family” (ouch). That was one of the most gut-wrenching allegations that stabbed me in my heart. We appreciate souls who can be my constant sanctuary enveloping me in their pure goodness, trust and love.
  20. Don’t spout out statements such as “God is punishing you” or “God wanted this to happen.” When life fails us, all we have is our faith in God. When you paint God as the one who caused this, although we know deep down He is the planner of all things, it doesn’t help. We want to see Him as our savior, not as one who harms us. As an alternative, pray with us and for us. Together, we can ask Him to cocoon our hearts, minds, bodies and souls to make our healing easy, quick, painless, special and beautiful.
  21. Don’t ask us to be the better person and forgive the rapist. He doesn’t deserve any empathy or forgiveness especially when he doesn’t even seek forgiveness or acknowledge that he did anything wrong. Forgiveness may or may not happen considering something so precious was stolen from us. Leave it up to us to forgive or not as we go through our healing process. It has been two years since I was raped and 28 years since I was sexually molested and I still cannot forgive those men.
  22. Don’t pester us to “get over it,” “put it behind” us or “stop thinking about it,” regardless of whether it has been one year or 20 years since the trauma. Realize that each soul is distinct, has different strengths and weaknesses and lives with unusual surroundings and varying degrees of a support system. Some of us know and trusted the attacker, while others didn’t. Some of us continue to live within the same vicinity as he does whereas others live across the country. Some of us have nearby friends and family to support us, while others do not. Some of us have access to counseling and others have nobody to talk to. In addition, the after effects of rape haunt us like a shadow for the rest of our lives, so most of us will never really get over it.
  23. Don’t insensitively make claims that it could have been worse and tell us to be thankful with comments like “at least you’re not dead.” Yes, that is ultimately true. At that time, though, death would have been a better alternative than living through this grief. And at that moment, the gravitational pull of our pain is so strong that we cannot fathom there could be a worse situation than ours. As an alternative to this, help us count our blessings of health, a job, loved ones and anything that is positive to keep our chin up without harshly telling us to be grateful.
  24. Never think our loss is not a loss, saying “it’s not like you lost anything.” Yes, we did lose something! And that thing is far more precious than money. Just because our dignity is not valued through dollar signs does not mean it is not a loss.
  25. Don’t stereotype us as “that” type of woman. There is no one kind of woman who gets raped. Instead, degrade that horrendous act and help us see our strengths, like our character, personality, inner and outer beauty and intelligence.
  26. Don’t attempt to understand the rape and/or abuse or the emotions tied to it.  An outsider who is watching or listening to the abuse unfold will not and cannot understand what led to the assault or why, we stayed, if we did, with the perpetrator.  Even we, the survivors cannot comprehend or digest anything when we are tangled up in the trauma.  The confusion, shock and weakness consume us and make our life a jigsaw puzzle that awaits to be put together. Instead, be our lifeline to whom we talk to when and if we need it.
  27. Don’t claim to know what we are going through. Your spat with your significant other, the work politics that you faced last week, your bad hair day or not having gotten the 2% raise that you were expecting are not valid comparisons to the ordeal that we have been through. Instead, acknowledge the gravity of our pain, don’t pretend to think you know our agony and actually tell us you have no idea what we are going through.The antidote to our pain is not to shame, blame, shun, scare, lecture or guilt-trip us, as we already do a spectacular job of this ourselves. Instead, support us, honor us, love us, console us, commend us, elevate us, encourage us, talk with us and make it about us: for once, let it be victim-centric. Be our moon that is always ever-ready and present to radiate in the darkest of moments with your illuminating light and intensifying beauty regardless of whether we acknowledge you or not.

This post was originally published on the author’s personal blog, Echoes of Her Voice.

Jan 182017

by Alia Azmat

sunset-690240_1280This morning I woke up, scrolled through my social media accounts, and found this. Curious and excited by the title, I wondered what this author had to say to someone like me. Then I read it. I read about how my biological clock is running out. I read about how I need to lower my standards, to find Mr. Suitable instead of Mr. Perfect (for me). I read about how I need to give [men] a chance because they are “surprisingly lovely.” I was told to look my best. That it is unreasonable to believe a man or his family could want, or desire me, for qualities beyond my body. I was NOT told to think critically about what I’d like my life after marriage to look like. What qualities I bring to a relationship, what qualities and markers of faith I am willing to negotiate with a potential partner or spouse.

What hurts is knowing other young women and girls are reading what I consider to be a toxic article about their worth and the importance of their existence in this world. The letter below is the letter I wish I had read this morning. This is the letter I wish someone had shown me as I turned 26. Muslim or non-Muslim, Asian, Arab or another ethnicity, maybe there is an alternative way to thinking about ourselves over 25.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
You are not being “too picky,” “too proud,” “too selfish.” Life doesn’t stop once you have a ring on your finger. Life doesn’t start when you have a ring on your finger either. You are not expired. You are not unlovable. Your worth is not tied to your marital status, or ability to make babies, or keep house. Your worth is tied to your existence. Your humanity.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
Maybe this “narrow window of opportunity” is a system of oppression, one which values women’s youth, fertility, physical beauty, their ability to perform demure femininity. Maybe you do not fit that mold. Maybe you fit that mold but are not interested in sharing that with anyone. Maybe you haven’t been satisfied with suitors. Maybe some suitors did not allow you to express your version of a complete woman. Maybe some suitors were not willing to work alongside you. Maybe some suitors forgot their own humanity in engaging with you. You deserve to be yourself. You deserve someone who honors your humanity.

Maybe you fell in love, but your family didn’t accept him. Maybe you fell in love but he didn’t share your faith tradition. It is not your fault for having hope. Maybe you found someone, connected with someone, planned a life with someone, only to have his family reject you. Maybe the only place to put the pain of that rejection was within yourself. Maybe you were told it was your fault he touched you, cheated on you, stole from you, betrayed you.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
Maybe you are South Asian, maybe you are Arab, Afghan, Eritrean, Sudanese, a convert to Islam, maybe you are Christian woman, a Jewish woman, or another woman of faith who has been told by friends, family, cultural, and religious messaging that you are not enough, without a spouse. Maybe you are single because you had the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship. Maybe you are widowed and still grieving the loss of your life partner. Maybe you are managing parenthood on your own. Maybe you are 26, 30, or 36. Who decided 25 means we are unwanted?

Maybe this is how the patriarchy works. Maybe you have started to believe being alone is abnormal, or aberrant. Maybe God calls upon the lonely, maybe God calls upon, and encourages solitude.

Maybe you believe you aren’t beautiful enough. But, beauty is an edge of becoming. Maybe you sit at the edge of emerging fullness, maybe your grace and elegance and respectful, autonomous character, your desire for justice and equity, are qualities invisible to the superficial eyes of a culture which expects and thrives of solely bodily objectification. Maybe you were told you are too large, too dark, too loud, or not loud enough. Maybe you were told you make too much money or not enough money. Maybe you are too educated or not educated enough. Maybe you have hurt yourself, starved yourself, drank yourself into oblivion trying to meet unattainable, unjust cultural expectations of yourself. I am here to tell you, the drive to do more, be more, eat less, weigh less, whiten-up, dress down, are constructed to control you, not him.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN. Maybe your younger sister got married before you. Maybe your dad is upset you would rather pursue a master’s degree or a Ph.D. than “settle down” right now. Maybe your mom wants to see you happy, but doesn’t know what to tell the local aunties about your singlehood. Maybe you feel obligated to talk to suitors to reduce the tension bubbling in your family. Maybe they also fear the uncertainty. Maybe your disability has stopped suitors from coming into the door. Maybe you aren’t interested in male suitors.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
YOU ARE BRAVE. Maybe you have been punished, instead of celebrated, in the past for using your voice. You are brave when you say, “I am worthy, I am enough, it is not my fault, I am not a burden”, silently to yourself. Maybe these whispers are new forms of dhikr. Maybe you refuse to be silenced. You are brave when you silence the self-doubt. You are brave when you invest in yourself and have the courage to say, “no” to a suitor who will suppress your dignity, your personhood. You are brave when you let yourself feel angry, feel sad, feel hurt by how much society expects from you without asking what it can do for you. You are brave when you pursue your dreams, when you reach out to help another, when you embrace the uncertainty of what being single/divorced/widowed at 25+ means for you.

You are brave when you request to talk to your family or friends on the impact #muslimgirlmicroaggressions have on your well-being. You are brave when you honor your trauma. When you reach out for help with your depression, your anxiety, your PTSD, your social nerves — all natural and appropriate responses to existing at the intersection of identities. You are brave when you make space for yourself to grieve the loss of opportunities. You are brave when you hold on to your faith identity. You are brave when you work through feelings of guilt and shame related to your single-lady existence. You are brave when you give yourself permission to be yourself. To be anything less than “perfect.” You are brave when you say “yes” to your journey towards radical self-love, self-compassion, self-acceptance. You are brave when you leave your home, though you may want to stay home, covered up.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,

Yours in solidarity,

Alia Azmat is a trainer for HEART Women & Girls and is currently also pursuing her PhD in Counseling Psychology.

Nov 182016

*Trigger Warning for sexual assault

This past weekend, survivor advocate an HEART board member Jenan Mohajir performed a story that she has been working in partnership with Chicago’s 2nd Story to produce. Her first performance this weekend came in the midst of a national outrage related to the surfacing of a video in which Trump brags about his entitlement to sexual assault.

This story delves deep into Jenan’s experiences working to support the brave men and women who came forward last year with allegations of sexual violence against prominent imam Abdullah Saleem, and other perpetrators, at his Quran school, Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Illinois. A civil and criminal case began simultaneously in February 2015.
After a long criminal case, Abdullah Saleem plead guilty to all charges of sexual assault in August 2016. The civil case still continues.

This is the story of a survivor and his advocate. You will hear about the devastation, vicarious trauma, and helplessness one feels during a situation like this. You will also hear about a woman who was inspired by her faith to continue to serve these brave individuals, and to channel the inner strength to be able to show up for them in a way the larger community was not able to.

Listen below to a powerful story. Please take care of yourself as you listen to it. According to rainn.org, we know that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes. Even though these statistics are not specific to any one community, we have no reason to believe that these are any different in the Muslim community. If you, or someone you know is a survivor, know that you are not alone, and know that there are many people out there who want to help you. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us or any number of other organizations and hotlines that are committed to helping survivors find healing and justice.
This story was produced by 2nd Story and performed at Pub626.

If you are specifically a victim of Abdullah Saleem or a different perpetrator at IIE, or anyone else, please do not hesitate to contact us if you need help, services, or just some place to talk, by emailing us today at heartwg@gmail.com.

Jun 242016

by Nadiah Mohajir

Father and daughter with glasses watching a video on the moile phone while traveling in train

Father and daughter with glasses watching a video on the moile phone while traveling in train

It happens to every parent: yesterday you were holding them in your arms, protecting them and their innocence. Yet, you quickly realize that even as young as 2 or 3, children are curious, intelligent little beings that are looking for answers about the way life works: including, of course, their bodies and how they came into the world. Like many of your peers, you are so. not. ready. The time has come for you to have “the talk” with them.

Some of you may want to start young and have conversations throughout childhood and adolescence, others may want to wait until the later elementary school years. Many of you want to have this conversation, but hesitate with embarrassment or confusion: is having an open, honest conversation about sex while still setting values or expectations possible? At HEART Women & Girls, we believe that it is, and hope to offer you some tips on how to begin this important conversation. Please do refer to our recent guide for Muslim parents on having these conversations with their kids.

Start Early. While most parents delay this conversation until just before puberty, it is crucial to begin these conversations as early as 3. There are many ways to have these conversations in age appropriate ways, so as to build off the knowledge as the child gets older.Ongoing, developmentally appropriate conversations have a few more advantages. For example, it normalizes topics related to sex and sexuality so that it is not seen as a shameful or embarrassing topic. Introducing these concepts throughout the elementary and adolescent years lays a foundation for lifelong critical decision-making and healthy relationships. And perhaps most importantly, as mentioned earlier, these conversations allow you to talk openly about your family’s values and expectations about sex and sexuality.

Keep the conversation going. The most important component of “the talk” for parents to remember is that it should be ongoing, throughout a child’s elementary and adolescent years. Though historically these conversations have been portrayed as being only a one-time lecture from parent to child, it is hard to imagine that one conversation will suffice. Even if you are well-prepared for this talk, one conversation cannot adequately equip a child with the information and skills they need for a lifelong set of experiences. Put another way, when children attend school, they learn academic subjects like math, science, and English, and as they grow older, the concepts build on each other and get more complicated, which ultimately provides them with a comprehensive understanding of the subject. In the same way, repeated, age-appropriate conversations about puberty and sex are crucial to give them information they need to fully process the big picture and figure out how they fit in it.

Encourage Questions. Giving kids permission to ask you questions openly and answering them honestly builds trust and creates a safe space for them to come to you in the future with questions as well.

Provide Information. Where can your child go for more information? Of course, he/she always has you to come to, but teaching your child to identify other trustworthy sources of information – both people in their lives as well as internet sources – is a very important skill to help them develop. They will then be able to ascertain the differences between legitimate websites and not so accurate websites, as well as will know which adults – in addition to you – they can seek help from should they need it.

Emphasize consent. Unfortunately, we live in a time when sexual violence is rampant. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 1 in 4 girls and 1 and 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse or assault before the age of 18. There is no racial, ethnic, or religious community immune to sexual violence. It is crucial that you explore situations involving boundaries and consent, as they are useful skills to have when thinking about sexual violence and healthy relationships. This information can help lay the foundation for healthy relationships in the future, and can also prepare your child to be that resource for their friends and peers if they are ever bystanders in a situation.

Be honest about family values and expectations. Many parents have asked me if it’s possible to be sex positive while still letting their kids know what they expect from them regarding sex. In other words, is setting a framework or guidelines by which young people can abide by conflicting with sex positive, autonomous decision making? It is perfectly ok for parents to lay down their expectations, while acknowledging that their child is old enough to make his/her own choices.

So once the actual biology of sex and reproduction is explained, what does a conversation about how it all plays out in real life and family values look like? We offer just one approach below.


Age 12 and under: Sex is an act between two consenting people. Consent means that both people have agreed to what is happening and can stop at any time they want. In Islam, most believe that sex is only permissible when those two people are married and it is considered an act of worship. Of course, there are many people—Muslim or not—who choose not to wait until marriage because the decision to have sex is different for everyone and requires both parties to think about what factors need to be present to move forward.

While sex can and should bring much pleasure, sex is also an act of great responsibility. People choose to have sex for many reasons, including: to express their love and desire for someone, to fulfill a physical need, or to have children. It is an act that makes you responsible for yourself and your partner.

Age 12 and older: Because it is a responsibility, you must be be prepared for sex. Preparing for sex often involves educating yourself on birth control and contraception options, knowing how to use them, engaging in open communication with your partner, and reflecting on and exploring your values, ideas, and desires before the heat of the moment. If you are not prepared, it may have an effect that you did not plan for. Physical consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Getting pregnant as a teen can make graduating high school and college more difficult. Whenever you decide to have sex, it is your right to have sex with contraception. No one should pressure you to have sex without it. Sex may also have social consequences such as tension in your relationship or friendships. Or it may have spiritual consequences such as guilt you may feel if your family doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.

Remember you also have a responsibility to always honor and respect your own boundaries as well as your partner’s. If you are not comfortable with a particular sexual act, or your partner is not comfortable with a particular sexual act , those feelings should be respected and honored. No means no, and it is your right to not have sex or engage in any other sexual activity if you do not want to.

I hope that you wait until you are [married, 21, an adult, in a committed relationship, enter expectation, if at any, here]. I know that there will be many times you will feel like not waiting, because romantic and sexual desires are natural and sex feels good and we live in a world where the pressure to have sex is overwhelming at times. So, I hope that you will wait too, but I also know you are a very thoughtful girl/boy who will make the best decision for you and your body.

If you found this article helpful, please do check out our publication: Let’s Talk about Sex a Guide for Muslim Parents on having the Talk with their Kids. The guide includes data, useful tips, and exercises that you can do with your child as you prepare them for this important part of life.

Jun 242016

By Nadiah Mohajir

two girls black silhouette and red sunsetLast week, The New York Times published a Mona Eltahawy article with a sexy headline: Sex Talk for Muslim Women. The article chronicled the author’s journey to sexual freedom: growing up in a conservative household, Ms. Eltahawy always knew that sex outside of marriage was not an option, but the older she grew, the more of this vow of abstinence began to feel like a burden. After years of struggling with the guilt and shame that accompanies many women who have sex outside of marriage, Eltahawy says she now enjoys her sexual liberation.

Mona’s story is not unfamiliar to me. I have heard countless stories of women – young and old – who find that their vow of abstinence has shifted from a spiritually motivated choice to a decision laden heavy with resentment. I fully understand and empathize with their sexual frustration. Read more…

Jun 242016

by Shannon Staloch

pregnancy-466129I’m always turning off lights at births.  Sometimes, it’s comical. I’ll walk in to check on the mom, and the lights will be on, lamps, overhead lights, etc. As I leave, I shut them all off with the exception of a candle or two, or a soft lamp.  An hour or so later, I come back to check, once again, lights are blaring. Again, I leave under the cover of night.  It might seem a silly thing for a midwife to focus on, but in fact, it’s essential to the hormones of labor.

Oxytocin is the queen of labor hormones. It is secreted in the posterior pituitary gland. Due to the role it plays in orgasm, birth and breastfeeding, oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone. During orgasm, it is released and contributes to the bonding that occurs between partners after orgasm. In birth, it is the hormone that causes the uterus to contract in a strong and rhythmic fashion.  In breastfeeding it causes the milk to eject from the milk ducts.  These three acts are all acts by their nature, deeply imbued with love, hence the love hormone.

Ina May Gaskin, the famous American midwife, is famous for saying that if a woman doesn’t look beautiful in labor, someone is doing something wrong.  Indeed, the women I attend in labor glow.  To get through a natural labor, a woman must moan, sway her hips, and go deep inside. Many parallels then, can be drawn between sex and birth. Hence, why I am always turning the lights down, it is my attempt to render an intimate and cozy environment, an environment akin to sexual intimacy. Oxytocin is also produced in greater quantities in the dark, when it’s warm, and with familiar people. Some doctors and nurses, recognizing this fact, will also turn down lights and whisper when in a laboring woman’s room.

My midwifery practice is culturally, racially and religiously diverse.  It is more often (not always!) with my Muslim clients that I often see a lack of sexual health and knowledge. Sadly, it seems that in many Muslim homes, young girls are not properly educated about their bodies, nor are they taught to revel in them or celebrate their strength. The link between sexuality and birth begins early in life. It begins with educating young girls about the functions and anatomies of their bodies.  Time and again, I have conversations with women about their menstrual cycle, and am frequently left jaw agape at the utter lack of knowledge of this simple function of a women’s body. Women with college degrees, born and raised in affluent California, have no idea that they are fertile for a short time every month and that there are clear signs from their bodies, heralding that fertility.

Not only that, the lack of conversation, curiosity and knowledge about the female body and its’ functions, seems to convey a sense of shame and embarrassment at the body itself. Recently, I visited one of my clients who had had a C-section. She was just a few days postpartum, and over the phone, had expressed concerns about her baby’s breastfeeding. I am a board certified lactation consultant. I know that mothers with C-sections often have difficulties in establishing breastfeeding and time is of the essence in getting breastfeeding straightened out. When I came to visit, her shirt was buttoned to the top button and she refused to let me observe a breastfeeding session. The baby was obviously hungry, but the shame was so intense that she went against her motherly instincts in order not to expose herself.

In contrast, I recently attended the birth of a fifth time mother. During labor, she was free to move around and change positions. She moaned softly with each contraction, and her face was soft and flushed. Her husband was by her side, holding her hand, supporting her squatting, giving her a back massage, and offering her sips of water throughout the entire labor. She would occasionally look up at him and ask for a kiss. The room was dimly lit, familiar to her, and warm. The baby was born easily and smoothly not long after I arrived. Once she and baby were checked out, I tucked her in and watched as the baby found the nipple all by itself. Her older kids were anxiously waiting outside the door, and even though some of the boys were teenagers, she felt comfortable allowing them in to witness the normalcy and the brilliance of the reproductive functions of the female body.

Birth is linked to sexual health. The more a woman can get in touch with her sexuality and cultivate a positive attitude towards her sexual health, the easier it will be to accept the grand bodily changes of pregnancy, the intensity and physicality of the birth, and to then nurture and nourish her baby through breastfeeding.  Below are six ways to improve your sexual health, and therefore improve your chances of a healthy birth.

    1. Become aware of your pregnant body.  The pregnant body is a thing of wonder, constantly changing, growing, expanding, all the while, growing another life. It’s easy to wax poetic about it. It’s also easy to feel uncomfortable while living inside it. For some women, the burgeoning belly is an announcement of their sex life, and they aren’t comfortable with that.  Because there is so much in the body that calls our attention during pregnancy, it’s an opportune time to get in touch with your body, if you aren’t already in the habit. To the best of your ability, embrace the changes your body is undergoing. Take the time each day to stretch, move, swim, and just marvel at the wonder of your body.
    2. Pay attention to your sexuality.  Does your desire increase or decrease during pregnancy? Because of the changes that occur during pregnancy, many women find arousal and desire increased during this time.  And many don’t!  Where do you fall on that scale?  Are there ways to express your sexuality other than intercourse?  Simply becoming aware of your desire is a huge step in connecting to your sexuality.
    3. Think about the messaging. What messages have you been given about your female body?  When you first menstruated, was it celebrated or shunned?  Were you told to pretend you weren’t on your menstrual cycle?  Were you taught it was dirty?  Or were you lovingly guided to embrace and accept the changes of adolescence?  Although it may not seem like it, these messages can have an impact on your birthing and breastfeeding. Journal some things that stand out, and if necessary, reframe the messaging.
    4. Move your hips! It is said that belly dancing originated in the Arabian Peninsula during births.  Women would surround the birthing women and move and sway their hips rhythmically, in order to show the birthing women how to move through her contractions.  Getting comfortable with this sensual movement is indeed helpful during the pain of labor contractions.  Circling the hips releases tension, and helps to send the contractions straight to the cervix, right where they need to be in order for labor to progress!
    5. Get the straight talk on vaginal exams.  For many women, the thought of vaginal exams makes them squeeze their knees together.  Talk with your doctor or midwife before hand about how you would like them performed, if at all!  Vaginal exams are not always necessary and can be triggering for women who have had unsolicited sexual experiences in the past.  They can also be uncomfortable.  You can request that your provider go slow, allow you to breathe and center yourself before the exam, and talk you through each step.  Prenatally, you can ask your provider under what circumstances exams are necessary.
    6. Baring it all.  You’ve made it through the birth, but now there’s all this breastfeeding! In the West, we live in a society that has sexualized breasts.  I traveled to Senegal when my oldest was a baby.  Even if they were covered head to toe, I was surprised at how easily women breastfed in public. These women weren’t worried about whether or not a square inch of their breast might be exposed; they were more concerned with taking care of their babies needs. Indeed, walking the streets of Senegal, I rarely heard a baby cry despite there being babies everywhere!  Think of ways in which breastfeeding, possibly needing to show your nipples and breasts to a healthcare professional, might affect you.  If it seems difficult, brainstorm ways in which you can get comfortable with this function of the female anatomy.

Female sexuality and healthy birth are linked in a complex and intricate manner; there cannot be one without the other. Let’s stop shunning the relationship between the two and strengthening its connection. The future of birth and babies depends on it.

Shannon Staloch is a mother of three. She has been serving families in the Bay Area as a licensed midwife and lactation consultant for nearly a decade. She also supports families through workshops in holistic health and nutrition. Her website is www.homemadefamilies.com.